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The Parthenon is the most important landmark in Greece. This temple from the Classical Age was built by the great leader, Pericles, to the goddess Athena.


If you go...

The birthplace of Western culture will awe you with historic monuments and gorgeous vistas, but there's also exotic ouzo, delicious souvlaki and moussaka, and traditional bouzouki music


There may be older ruins elsewhere, but none of them can be found in a more beautiful, up-to-date metropolis than Athens, considered to be the birthplace of Western culture. Many of civilization's intellectual movements -- such as democracy, philosophy, architecture, geometry, history and artistic realism -- originated here, so your visit offers a learning experience in addition to lots of fun.

Athens is also a brilliantly modern city, with a huge new pedestrian zone downtown, a new metro system and many improvements, including a new airport under way for the 2004 Summer Olympics homecoming.

Three main destinations in Athens are the Parthenon, downtown and Plaka, the historic pedestrian zone that is probably Europe's oldest continuously occupied neighborhood.

In business for 5,000 years, central Athens is now filled with colorful shops, art galleries and sidewalk restaurants. Some fine night clubs here offer traditional music and folk-dance shows to complete your Greek experience.

Try to squeeze in a boat ride to nearby islands, and if you have time, head to the Peloponnese Peninsula or the sacred site of Delphi.


Acropolis and Plaka

Start with the most important site, the majestic Parthenon, one of the world's oldest buildings. Still standing after 2,500 years, the Parthenon rises like a sentinel above Athens' center, atop the hill of the Acropolis. Its gleaming marble columns and triangular pediments are the city's most recognizable images, representing a classical style that has been copied all over the world.

The Parthenon is the culmination of classical Greek architecture, and was built for the city's patron goddess, Athena. In the main temple room stood a 39-foot statue of the goddess, covered in ivory and gold, created by the sculptor Pheidias. The inner sanctum was a treasury for the empire's riches and its beautiful marble statues depicting humans' struggle for survival and their relationship with gods.

The statues were stolen or broken during the millennia, and most of the interior has also been destroyed, but the 46 outside columns and the roofline are intact, making it appear from a distance that everything is in place. You can see some of the statues in the small museum on the Acropolis, but the largest part of the collection is in London. In one of art history's greatest controversies, Lord Elgin "bought" hundreds of statues from Turkish guards occupying the site, and took them to London.

The Parthenon remained intact for 2,000 years until 1687, when the interior was blown up by Venetian invaders in battles with the Turks, who used the temple for ammunition storage.

Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens, is a colorful place to walk, shop, eat and hear traditional Greek music.

The Erechtheion, a smaller temple for Athena and Poseidon next to the Parthenon, is another example of ancient Greek architecture, famous for its six caryatids -- ladies in marble who stand like living columns holding up the roof. Their flowing stone gowns resemble the fluting on classical columns. Excellent replicas are in place, with the originals housed in the Acropolis Museum.

One of the museum's masterpieces is a segment of the Parthenon's frieze. The other half is in the British Museum. Two more major features on the Acropolis are the Propylaea, the ceremonial entrance gate, and next to it, the Temple of Athena Nike.

Take in the panoramic view of Athens from the hill behind the Parthenon. The city of 3.5 million people stretches to distant hills. Looking down, you will see the charming Plaka district and a large field of ancient ruins that was the Agora, the ancient marketplace of Athens, during the Classical Period, 2,500 years ago.

Looking down from the Acropolis on the south side, you will see the ancient Theater of Dionysus, where drama was invented by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes and Euripides. The outdoor arena, built into the hillside, could hold an audience of 17,000. The adjacent theater, the Odeon of Herod Atticus, could hold 6,000. Outdoor performances are still held each summer.

Your next destination, Plaka, is just six blocks away.

>> Plaka: From the Acropolis, stroll downhill along Dionissiou Areopagitou, which has been transformed into a lovely pedestrian promenade. Plaka is Athens' oldest neighborhood. Until a couple of centuries ago, this was the extent of the city, but now it is a tranquil island surrounded by a modern, sprawling megalopolis. You will come to an ancient ruin, the monument to Lysicrates, a 33-foot tower built in 334 B.C.

Plaka is just eight blocks long and five blocks wide, with one main street, Adrianou, a quaint but touristy lane lined with shops selling T-shirts, souvenirs, postcards, jewelry and clothing.

If you're looking for good quality clothing, you will do better three blocks over on Ermou.

The corner of Adrianou and Kidathinaion is a major pedestrian crossroad, making this a good place to rest at a sidewalk cafe.

Plaka was once the extent of the city of Athens but is now a tranquil island amid the bustle. It is just eight blocks long and five blocks wide with one main street the touristy Adrianou.

Walk a block to the little square, Platia Plaka. At night, the corner cafe is packed with young locals. The quality of the lively sidewalk cafes is similar, with decent food at low prices. Ah, the foods of Greece! This is reason enough to make the trip.

Browse the back neighborhoods, which have an earthy, genuine feeling that reflects 2,500 years of civilization. You might see the lady feeding stray cats, or the Museum of Musical Instruments, a small corner art gallery, or a vast field of Roman ruins.

One example is the tiny lane Anafiotika, at the uppermost level of Plaka, just two twisted blocks from the Lysicrates monument. It takes you a few blocks through a residential enclave of ancient homes, then onto a plateau for another astonishing city view.

The most picturesque dining scene in the Plaka is along a pair of staircase streets, with tables spilling from one level to the next and overhead vines shielding diners from the sun. See if you can find Mnissikleous Street, just before you reach the Roman Agora. The next street, Erehtheos, has a similar flight of steps with tables for casual meals.

One block away you will find Eden Vegetarian Restaurant, with grilled veggies, cheese and spinach pies, legumes and other delicious dishes.

At night there is great entertainment in Plaka. Many bars feature authentic Greek music played on the bouzouki, a mandolin-like instrument. Two popular music spots are Palia Plakiotiki Taverna, which has been in business for 100 years, hosting local musicians. For the big dinner show, Greek folk dances are performed at Kalokerinos Taverna, with costumes and dances representing different regions. Wash down your Big Fat Greek Dinner with a couple of ouzos and some retsina (resin wine) and by the end of the night, you'll be up on stage, swept away by the infectious rhythm of the dance.

The musical action doesn't get going until 10 p.m., so continue your Plaka explorations by walking to the end of Adrianou where you will reach the Roman Agora, scene of the main marketplace during five centuries of Roman domination. The most notable structures are the Library of Hadrian, an impressive wall with Corinthian pilasters, and the octagonal Tower of the Winds, used to tell time and forecast the weather 2,000 years ago. The neighborhood by the Agora is another great dining spot.

The Temple of Zeus, the largest temple ever built in ancient Greece, was actually constructed by the Romans during their time of domination, using a Greek design and Roman engineering.

Other impressive Roman ruins can be found at the Temple of Zeus, which was the largest temple in Greece and still has 16 columns standing 60 feet high.

Most shops close for afternoon siesta, and if they reopen, they close around 6 p.m., but stores in Plaka don't close until 10 p.m. While away the evening in Plaka, checking out those side streets, then find a nice restaurant and enjoy some Greek music.


The Greek Agora and downtown

Start with an early visit to the sprawling Greek Agora, Europe's first shopping center. Along with commercial activities, it would have been the center of civic life in ancient Athens, a place for rituals, religion, politics and philosophy, where Socrates and Plato undoubtedly held court.

Located at the foot of the Acropolis just beyond Plaka, the Agora is now a field of rubble and broken marble fragments, but it does have a couple of intact buildings that provide an idea of how beautiful the city once was. The small temple of Theseion is one of the best preserved Classical buildings in Greece, standing on a knoll overlooking what had been the main marketplace 2,500 years ago. It looks like a mini Parthenon, with columns all around the central chambers. The other wonderful building is the Stoa of Attalos, which was rebuilt in the 20th century. The Stoa has a terrace lined with columns and a small museum containing statues and jewelry found on the site.

>> Downtown: Upon exiting the Agora through the gate on the Monastiraki side, you will be plunged into the Flea Market, a place that still carries on the ancient marketplace traditions. Old and new rub together here in a chaotic way, with a mix of ruins, restaurants and shopping stalls. A pedestrian alley snakes through the shops, offering cheap clothing, bags, shoes, records, junk and souvenirs. There are a few antique shops, plus many little places to eat.

In the middle of the Flea Market, you will come upon Monastiraki Square. Continue wandering through the narrow shopping streets, along Pandrossou and Mitropoleos. In between there is a charming outdoor dining plaza, with live Greek music most of the time, at Platia Dimopratiriou.

>> Ermou and Syntagma: You are ready to visit the nicest street in town, Ermou, a pedestrian promenade lined with fine shops, stretching one-half mile from Monastiraki to the central square, Syntagma. Until the early 1990s, Ermou was just another noisy street, but extensive renovation has transformed central Athens into a world-class European capital.

When Ermou Street was built in the 19th century, Kapnikarea Church was in its path so the road was built around the church, which now sits in a tiny square in the middle of the pedestrian boulevard. It's a great example of an 11th century Byzantine church. Two blocks away, on Mitropoleos Street, is Athens' main church, the Metropolitan Cathedral, built in the mid-19th century from pieces of 72 demolished churches, put together in a Byzantine style. Next to it is the Little Cathedral, constructed from pieces of churches dating to the 6th century.

Special events sometimes bring out the kids in costume. This parade on March 25 was for Greek Independence Day.

Continue along Ermou to Syntagma Square, a tree-lined park surrounded by landmark buildings. The large palace is home to the Greek Parliament, and in front is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the guards change at 11 a.m. daily. The ceremony is especially elaborate on Sundays, when the military band plays and dozens of soldiers in traditional white skirts and tights march through the square.

The National Garden behind the Parliament offers miles of paths winding past ponds, fountains and benches.

Adjacent to the Parliament is another great Athens institution, the Hotel Grand Bretagne. First opened a century ago, it reopens next year after a modernization. The new metro has a major station under the square, which features a display of artifacts and foundations discovered during the subway tunneling. It has taken years to build the metro because archaeological sites were discovered every time workers dug a hole.

There are some good eating possibilities here, especially Neon, a cafeteria popular with locals. Or try fast food Greek-style at a couple of souvlaki takeout places on Ermou for inexpensive gyros. Ariston, at 10 Voulis St., is a typical souvlaki joint.

>> Central Market, Omonia: You could ride the metro from Syntagma up to Omonia Square, but that would spoil the fun of walking. Omonia is no big deal, but the streets leading to it are fun, so leave Syntagma Square and go on Ermou for six blocks until you reach Evangelistrias, where you enter another quarter-mile pedestrian mall.

When the road peters out, turn left at Evripidou and walk a block to shop-filled Athinas Street. Its main site is the Central Market, a huge meat-and-fish market that covers most of a block. Inside are late-night tavernas, such as Giannopoulos and Papandreau. Across the street is an outdoor fruit and vegetable market along two pedestrian streets.

Two of the major downtown commercial streets are just a few blocks east and worth a detour, especially to see the impressive row of three neoclassical buildings looking like ancient temples -- the University, the Academy and the National Library. Then walk a few blocks along Stadiou, through a commercial neighborhood to Omonia Square, a big, traffic circle, with people flowing in and out of the metro station.

And, now, on to the highest point in Athens.

>> Lycabettos and Kolonaki: Even the most intrepid walker needs to resort to an occasional taxi, and now is such a moment, but beware: Athens taxi drivers are notorious for overcharging tourists, so make sure the meter is running or you agree on a price before you start. Tell the driver you want to go to the Lycabettos funicular.

The funicular, at the corner of Ploutarchou and Aristippou, is a fun way to get to the top of Lycabettos Hill, 909 feet above the city. From here you will enjoy a panoramic view, especially if Athens' smog is not too severe.

Walk around the terraces for various perspectives, looking for the landmarks down below. There is an excellent restaurant, Dionysos, that provide a perfect view. Dionysos operates a second restaurant on the other side of town at the foot of the Acropolis, looking up to a perfect view of the Parthenon, especially beautiful at night with the spotlights.

Hop the funicular again for a swift descent, and then take a stroll from the foot of the hill through another of Athens' premiere neighborhoods, Kolonaki, an elegant shopping district. Follow the staircase straight down from the funicular station along Plutarchou. Trendy shops and cafes line your route as you approach the epicenter of the hip district, Kolonaki Square.

Don't miss the popular hangout, Da Capo. Its tables spill across the corner of the square at Tsakalof, a shopping street with the fanciest stores in town. A sprinkling of art galleries and antique shops completes the mix. The Benaki Museum is nearby, with a large collection covering Greek history, with special emphasis on the Byzantine period.

Have a look down Millioni as you make your way to the embassy-lined street of Vassilissis Sophias that will take you back to Syntagma Square.

Return to Plaka in the evening, or head to Psiri, a hip warehouse district, just two blocks north of Monastiraki, centered around Iroon Square and the Iroon Cafe.

The center of action is Zeidoron's sidewalk cafe. Boutiques and art galleries fill this neighborhood, which comes alive at night. Some shops along Ermou remain open late, with sidewalk entertainers to attract strollers.

Hydra is a quaint island with a fishing-port atmosphere and a hillside village. It is one of three islands that can be reached from Athens by hydrofoil or ferry for a perfect day trip.


Island hopping

OK, you have seen Athens. Now it's time to get out of town and enjoy the other side of Greece -- the island experience. With more than 100 inhabited islands and thousands of little outcrops scattered in the Aegean and Adriatic, the sea is the essence of Greece, and Athens is close to three that are easy to reach. A hydrofoil from Piraeus will get you to Aegina in 30 minutes, and you can connect on through the gulf to the islands of Poros and Hydra, returning to Athens the same day. This schedule will provide a few hours to enjoy each island. Their harbor villages offer a pleasant glimpse of island life.

You can buy a package deal where everything is neatly organized.

One operator is Olympic-Hydraiki ( A drawback is that it eliminates flexibility, and uses slow ferries rather than speedy hydrofoils.

To create your own trip, take a 30-minute train ride ($3) from Monastiraki station, or pay $12 for a taxi, to Piraeus and hop on the next boat to Aegina, 12 miles away. Flying Dolphin ( hydrofoils are located on the harbor front, across from the train station. With 42 ships, they provide excellent service.

Rather than buying a three-island ticket, you might be better off purchasing one-way ($7) for the first leg, in case you decide to stay on Aegina for the day. That will give you flexibility in going to your next destination. You might opt for the slower ferry, with open decks, rather than the hydrofoil. The Aegina boats can be found on the Piraeus harbor.

On Aegina, life runs at its own speed. The picturesque harbor village will charm and seduce you to stay for the day, but you can absorb its magic with a stroll past the fishing boats tied up at the dock, and detours through the cobbled lanes lined with shops and outdoor markets. Take a horse-carriage ride through town, or a tour to the Temple of Aphaia, an eight-mile scenic bus ride through pistachio groves.

Take the Flying Dolphin for $9 for a 30-minute trip to Poros, another cute island with a charming fishing village harbor. Then hop the next boat to Hydra, a quaint island with a fishing-port atmosphere, and a hillside village to explore. There are no cars so the only ways to get around are by boat, donkey or on foot. This is an island of tranquility, where interesting lanes take you past homes clinging to the hills and back to the harbor, where the Flying Dolphin will take you back to Piraeus.

If you have more time, a couple of popular day trips from Athens take you to the sacred site of Delphi, where the Oracle foretold the future, and to the Peloponnese Peninsula, visiting the prehistoric palace at Mycenae, the ancient theater of Epidaurus and the Corinth Canal. The easiest way to cover major outlying islands is with a four-day cruise to Mykonos, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini.

Dennis Callan is the president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" TV series airing 8 p.m. Mondays on 'Olelo, channel 52. He frequently leads tours through Europe, and writes "Three Days in ..." for the Star-Bulletin the first Sunday of the month explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places.


If you go ...

Here are a few places to stay and dine while in Athens. If calling from abroad, the phone prefix is 011-30.


>> Grand Bretagne: My favorite, in Syntagma Square; call 1-333-0000

>> Davani Palace Acropolis, 199 Parthenonos Makrigiani, call 1-922-2945

>> Electra Hotel, 5 Ermou St., call 1-322-3223

>> Titania Hotel, 52 Panepistimious Ave., call 1-330-0111

>> Royal Olympic Hotel, 28 Diakou, call 1-922-6411

>> Plaka Hotel, 7 Kapnikareas St., call 1-322-2096

>> Hotel Parthenon, 6 Makri St., call 1-923-4594

>> St. George Lycabettus Hotel, 2 Kleomenous, call 1-729-0711


In the Plaka:

>> Palia Plakiotiki Taverna, 26 Lissiou; call 1-322-8722, Greek Bousoukis music.

>> Kalokerinos Taverna, 10 Kekropos St.; call 1-323-2054, dinner show with Greek music and folk dancers.

>> Plaka Restaurant, corner of Kidathineon and Geronta.

>> Eden Vegetarian Restaurant, corner of Mnissikleous and Lissiou.

>> Possidon, 39 Kapnikareas at Adrianou, call 1-322-3822.

Elsewhere in town:

>> Dionysos, opposite the Acropolis on Dionissiou Areopagitou, call 1-923-3182, and atop Lycabettos Hill, call 1-722-6374.

>> Zeidoron, 10 Taki, in Psiri, call 1-321-5368.

>> Ariston, 10 Voulis St., for souvlaki.


>> Tourlite, 800-272-7600

>> Olympic-Hydraiki, one-day cruise; call 1-42-915-0110

>> Flying Dolphin, 1-419-9200









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